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Research question

I am currently investigating 419 (advance fee) scams, with an eye to finding out just how large they can get.

Amaka Anajemba helped extract $242m from Brazilian bank Banco Noroeste, according to Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission; the initial trial collapsed when the judge in Abuja stated that he lacked jurisdiction, but they were subsequently tried in Lagos instead, and after various alarums and excursions (including attempts to bribe everyone in the courthouse) she and her associates were found guilty.

$242 million. That's the biggest 419 scam I've heard of. Anyone got anything larger to point me at? Ideally in the billion-plus range?

(NB: More on advance fee fraud here and, enlighteningly, here.)

68 Comments

1:

Take a look at this website for 419 information. Very humorous.

http://www.419eaters.com

3:

It's interesting that you ask. I have indeed heard about larger 419 scams, but unfortunately I am unable to tell you right now due to my current circumstances. Let me tell you, with knowledge of this 419 scam you will never be tricked again! You will save millions (and possibly earn millions, too).

As a measure of trust between us, let's correspond by email. I will send you some money to make sure that our bank accounts are both functioning properly. Can you send me your bank routing information?

4:

Arguably, the former director general of the Iraqi ministry of defence, Ziad Cattan, achieved this when he promised the US that he could deliver them security, democracy, cheaper oil, and a safe exit from Iraq in exchange for a small advance fee. He proceeded to steal the entire defence budget for 2004-2005.

5:

There have been a couple of academic article published in anthropology journals about links between the 419 scam, globalisation, and the occult. One in particular strikes me as being of possible be of use:

- Smith, D. J. 2001. 'Ritual Killing, 419, and Fast Wealth: Inequality and the Popular Imagination in Southeastern Nigeria' in American Ethnologist, Vol. 28, No. 4.

And, I may have imagined this, but wasn't there something about pyramid schemes almost destroying the Albanian economy in the mid-1990s?

6:
And, I may have imagined this, but wasn't there something about pyramid schemes almost destroying the Albanian economy in the mid-1990s?
Yes, there was, in Theresa's post that Charlie linked to above :) The IMF has an article on it.
7:

The American sub-prime mortgage Ponzi-scheme?

Hey, I'm selling T-shirts: 'Sub-Prime Since Birth'

8:

I so much want to suggest the election of a president of a well known western country, and the diversion of funds into the industrial-military complex. But that would be totally untrue.

9:

ObSF - Bob Shaw's _Kingdom of O'Ryan_.

10:

In a sense aren't charities a 419 variant scheme?

Didn't Enron become essentially a multi billion 419?

11:

As the first poster mentioned - and although it's not what you're looking for, and you're almost certainly already aware of it - it's worth mentioning that there's a thriving community of scambaiters: people who spend their time playing with 419ers, frequently by pretending to be fictional or unlikely characters.

An example - I spent a while acting the part of a bosnian muslim priest, the Imam Troje Jaja, trying in my email to persuade the scammer's contact in Vienna to meet me as I left the plane from Sarajevo while holding a sign with my name on it. "Imam Troje Jaja" is approximately "I have three bollocks" in Bosnian. Sadly I didn't succeed with that one, but many have done better :-)

If you've not already mined this seam of webby amusement clean, you might want to check out http://sweetchillisauce.com/nigeria.html - a man who played the character of a whore with a heart of gold and couldn't get the scammer to stop proposing to him even after he explained explicitly that he is a middle-aged man - and http://www.ebolamonkeyman.com/, who manages such amazing coups that I have to wonder if he's making it all up...

12:

Heck, if you look at it close enough the idea of the Stock Market and any form of investing is in essence a confidence game like a 419.

The difference is intent and accountability. Intent to defraud versus intent to deliver the promised results. If you don't deliver, do your assets go on the block to pay back investors or do you skip off into the jurisdictionary tangle free as a lark with a big wad of cash?

419's are intended as frauds from the get-go, and fully intend to skip off into the night with a big wad of cash. Charities don't count as 419's in my book because you get feel-good back from it, even if 70% of your donations is funneled out the back door to fund illegal arms shipments somewhere; that's a different kind of fraud than 'advanced fee fraud'.

13:

Interestingly, your second informational source is mostly wankered in it's links...

Just FYI. BTW, how old _was_ that page...

14:

WilliamB: it dates to 2004, so it's not surprising that some of the links have rotted. (BTW, "wankered" is not a recognizable derivative of "wanker", unless the root word has mutated drastically in meaning and usage.)

Let me be more specific: I'm looking for planned frauds, not stuff that shares some characteristics if you look at it funny, or stuff that was originally semi-honest in original intent but went badly wrong (such as Enron which was, let us recall, initially an energy company).

15:

Dotcom boom, railway mania, tulip bubble, south sea bubble, darien company - there's always a good idea in the middle of it all, but then Something happens, and the wisdom of crowds isn't. Your actual good idea then becomes a pyramid fraud: but the fraud needs a cargo-cult resemblance to the good idea if it is to work.

When the cashier makes the money over to his cat, and leaps on a boat to New York, it's obviously fraud. But what about when the Very Ambitious Railway Company tells a few porkies about the likely cost of the wayleaves, and pays a few early dividends out of a general fund which may or may not be sustained by issues of new capital?

There's a very big grey area around company promotions in the mid-nineteenth century. Following a long debate about whether or not it's right to create artificial people without much bother, we got the limited liability laws. These weren't discoverd engraved in the vaults of the Bank, they were the product of much debate about the various rights of debtor, creditor, investor and manager. Oh, and labour.

The killer argument in their favour - limited liability is a Good Thing! It helps society by mobilising capital.

Hell, 419ers are a Good Thing! They transfer cash from dog-in-the-manger Westerners, who are after all subjectively fraudsters. Then they pay off all their mates in Lagos, netting a north-south resource transfer of the kind usually performed by several million Fillipina nurses.

16:

I find your cynicism ... refreshing.

(Am researching this stuff for a possible sequel to Halting State, involving the biggest fraud evah.)

17:

I was under the impression that "wankered" meant "seriously drunk and acting unpleasantly", in phrases such as "he got wankered on six cans of lager and started smashing up the room". It appears to be a valid construction in that form, though I'm not sure what it has to do with linkrot.

18:

"Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" is on Gutenberg. If I remember right, it was added in early February.

I've a sneaking suspicion that it is the sole source for some of the best scams of the South Sea Bubble, but some of the bubble companies--things like improving livestock--are definitely not-daft.

19:

"the biggest fraud evah"

Isn't that the US presideential erection oops, election?

20:

Wrong kind of fraud; I'm looking for intentional attempts to steal money by deception, not anything else.

21:

re charlie@20:
yes, and?

23:

Between 1907 and 1916, an accountant named Jesse Varley took Wolverhampton Corporation for about �80,000. He used the old 'phantom soldiers' scam: in this case phantom teachers. A bit of re-binding of the accounts solved the pesky audit problem. You can find out more about this from the work of my old (alas now dead) mate John B. Smith, [who also invented the flame-proof nightie] in Smith and Moore (eds) _Corruption in Urban Politics and Society, Britain 1780-1950_

Yr man from the Iraqi defence ministry in 2004/5 appears to be the international record holder, as far as I know. Or failing that Mobuto. But is that quite what you're after?

24:

Chris: £80K in 1916 was real money. (Call it 8-16 million in today's terms?)

But what I'm really after is 419 scams on a mammoth scale. (I'm researching the possibility of sticking one in my next SF novel -- for 2010 -- that's about a scheme to take the World Bank, the EU, and the US government for a sum measured in the high tens of billions. Of course, you need to put a bit of money in up-front to make the pitch convincing, but ... well, I'm just trying to make sure it hasn't already been done!)

25:

Hmm . . . then you need to engage the zeitgeist. Press all the right buttons and the capital will flow: see, forex, the Darien company or the 1947 Groundnut Scheme (ObSF - the latter was skewered in the first _Dan Dare_).

The point must be, though, that for it to be a proper 419, none of the investors can suspect, but once we get to huge public sector boondoggles, then some at least of the paymasters realise that the space shuttle / Akosombo Dam / World Student Games / [insert Lottery Millenium Fund project here] is just a way of buying votes and recruiting retainers.

26:

Chris, you're using an invalid email address. Please don't do that. (I just tried to email you and it bounced, hard.)

27:

Ah, the rotters at MS had pulled it. Yet when I checked just now, they had the email address all cookied-up waiting for me. I've just successfully reactivated it though, but in any case the grown-up address is above.

28:

JohnBStone @10, as a member of the board of a very small charity (http://www.beadingforacure.org), I must say that not all charities spend money on fundraising. Everybody in our organization is a volunteer and other than paying for needed costs (website, occasional postage, auditor, etc.), we keep $500 in our account at the end of the year and the rest goes to NCCRA (http://www.eifoundation.org/national/nccra/splash/).

As to "wankered," I can see how it might have moved to mean drunk idiot, but that's not where it started. "Wank" is the verb for male masturbation, "wanker" is the male who does it. It has the idea of wasting time and being useless. So from there, "wankered" would mean that person had become (or been made) a male masturbator/timewaster & useless. Not quite drunk idiot.

29:

When I still relied on my yahoo account I used to get loads of 419 spam. Strangely, most of them purported to come from Burkina Faso. I say 'strangely', because the literal meaning of 'Burkina Faso' is 'the land of honest men'.

Ithangyew.

30:

If you want to see the biggest scam of all, look at the US Social Security system... Something like $11 trillion in unfunded liability.

31:

I haven't heard of any larger amounts, but there a couple of local (to me) research papers from Caslon Analytics (http://www.caslon.com.au/419scamnote.htm) and the Australian Institute of Criminology (http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/tandi121.html) that may be of interest.

32:

Charlie -

There's been some pretty darn huge thefts via 491 and Ponzi schemes in Eve Online. Let me know if you're interested in that aspect of things.

(Ones which make the second life equivalents look poor, if it wasn't for the fact that the SL ones are more directly cash compared to the Eve ones...)

33:

I see that the political axe-grinding has started.

Somehow, to make all this money from a scam, it has to either scam huge numbers of people, or you have to fool people with control of huge amounts of money.

The internet makes the first easier.

I'm not sure, but 419 scamming seems to be the wrong model for the second option, not that the people who control huge amounts of money seem all that sensible. My ISP, I hear, has never turned in a profit, and is advertising services it doesn't havbe the bandwidth to provide. Is that a 419 scam?

34:

Andrew G: the US social security system isn't a scam ... unless you put contraceptives in the water supply and/or kill all the children. I think you've been drinking the libertarian kool-aid.

35:

Charlie: No, the US social security system is a case of straight, if large-scale, embezzlement. It was supposed to be an investment fund, with the capital left in place to accrue more interest. Congress, over and over, chose to raid the fund and spend the money, so much of the potential interest will never be earned, even assuming an honest bunch of politicians were to replace the capital that was taken.

36:

I suspect there was at least one very large 419 operation in post-Soviet Russia, probably in the 1990s. There are known large-scale examples of just about every other form of finanical crime, so it wouldn't be surprising. At least one Ponzi sceme, the MMM company, involved several million victims, and there's a case of an American couple who tried to steal $7 E 9 from Russian investors and move it out of the country (they even resorted to laundering kidnap ransom money).

37:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bre-X

Six billion market capitalization, 100% fraud.

38:

Charlie - You might also want to look into the rise and fall of Gizmondo and the saga of Jonathan Yantis.

39:

Charlie @ 24

The current banking crisis likely will take the central banks for billions, even if it is mainly in interest not paid. And wouldn't the individual banks paint a blacker picture than reality if that would help them get bigger central bank concessions, etc?

40:

Been there, been doing that, got a death threat for my trouble.

http://themediadesk.com/files/419alive.htm

41:

Now this is unverified and hearsay, but I heard of a Soviet railroad project where there was a $1.5 Billion dollar pricetag that was actually no track ever laid. According to some random history buff drunk at a party, for years there were regular progress reports in the newspaper, and mentions in speeches. The money was simply split up amongst the relevant officials, who siphoned it out of the country, liberally bribing anyone responsible for approving the progress of construction. No clue if it's real of not, and it doesn't really fall under 419, but the spirit of the thing fits.

42:

Following on from Dave Bell @33, a 419-type scam is the industrialisation of scams; rather than hand-crafting your scam for every mark, you mass produce it and send it out to see who picks it up. Back in the old days, you'd pick whichever scam in your repertoire seemed appropriate and then tailor it to the target. This investment of time and effort was obviously most effective when applied to moderately wealthy and up people and organisations. This might create utterly bizarre situtations, but it doesn't matter how outlandish your scheme is if it fits in with the mark's preconceived ideas.

A 419 scam attampts to be attractive to the widest range of people, so taps into widely believed sterotypes - hence corrupt African governments and companies. They don't have to be true, they only have to be true enough to convince someone to hand over their cash.

Or so I'm told, anyway.

43:

Have you considered rogue traders? Usually banking personnel with the authority to enter positions in various markets who greatly exceed that authority with typically disasterous results. These individuals often disguise their activities by circumventing supervisory systems, or fooling them with phantom hedge transactions.

The Barings Bank collapse brought about by unauthorised futures trades by Nick Leeson is one example. A similar thing occurred with the National Australia Bank a few years later, but it was able to absorb the losses with only a few token scalps at the boardroom level.

The most egregious example to date of this type of behaviour is the 5 billion Euro loss suffered by Soci�t� G�n�rale at the hands of its erstwhile trader Jerome Kerviel.

Often these guys are simply trying to beat the average spreads, demonstrating superior ability to their employers. A corrupt insider taking positions to the advantage of an external party would make an interesting scenario.

44:

Frobisher 'found gold' on Baffin Island in the 1560s, and took his backers for about �20,000 to finance the expedition to exploit it. Oh, and find the northwest passage. OTOH he spent it on exploration, and main, knowing, backer, Michael Lok, also lost 20k.

That's about 10% of the entire English state budget of the time. On the other hand, at about that time, Potosi had come on stream, and the Portuguese monopoly of Indian Ocean trade was minting cash. So it kind of looked right.

45:

I have had communication with some aliens who will tell me the plans for a faster than light drive. Unfortunately I need to build a bigger and better receiver in order to download them. Can you provide some capital to build the reciever and dockyard in return for part of the payoff when we build the first FTL spaceships?

46:

I can do better than that, Guthrie - I can offer you some Free Land on which to site your dockyard! It's off the coast of Ireland, which my micro-state now owns following the construction of a wind farm and some legal shenannighans written on _very_ expensive paper, which you are welcome to inspect. A little bit of refuse-dumping and I'll be ready to donate you some land in return for a very small percentage of the spaceship's massive trading returns.

Sure there's some hassle, but (as sharp operators like you and I understand) this means that we'll be out of the grasp of any earth government and its tax collectors. What do you think?

PS - by the way, my 'free land' operation might be a little delayed: I cleaned myself out buying the wind farm (long story), and I'm just a few euros short of the pay-off that I need to send to a low-level official in the Irish Navy. He's a great character and I can put you in touch with him if you want. Perhaps you two could work out a way of moving this forward together?

ObSF - That Alan Moore _Future Shock_ about the werewolf on the generation ship.

47:

Someone on my World of Warcraft server tried a classic Ponzi scheme - join their guild for 1 gold, and when you hit level 40, you get a free mount (usually costs 9 or 10 gold).

It didn't work.

48:

Of course, depending on how cynical you are -- I'm fairly cynical, personally -- the selling of Papal Indulgences would probably rank very highly, after adjusting for, um, radical development and industrial revolution, etc. Might be the biggest organized fraud ever. Hell, you could even consider the Papacy itself a fraud of major proportions, in many ways -- and it sure did have its way with the governments of its time. The trick to prolonging it all? A "Higher Power"... some irresistible force. There are a few of those to throw around, I bet... hurricanes in the right place, or Terrorist Security, or a Peak Oil scare + alternative-energy research.

I like the example of Frobisher. The text that Raleigh wrote to get [Queen Elizabeth's] backing for the exploration of Guiana are pretty clearly fraud too (unless there was something in the water). I don't know how much money he got out of James eventually for the Second Voyage, though it's kind of neat that it was the El Dorado legends he'd himself helped to build up that apparently had a part in King James' decision to release him from prison and send him off on another exploratory mission. His scam was certainly less monumental in the take, but he's a colorful example of someone who scammed at least one government.

49:

More details on the Banco Noroeste fraud. I must say it seems to have transcended the category of "advance fee fraud". That $242m didn't consist of fees, it was the investment itself.

Anyway, it seems the challenge is to identify the largest sum of money ever handed over to someone who promised certain goods or services in return, but who knew from the beginning that the goods or services in question did not exist. Some of the examples from commerce and finance are interesting, in that the recipient of the funds may start out optimistic, then discover that the hoped-for windfall is not there, but that meanwhile they still have a line of credit that will allow them to dig the hole they're in much deeper. If they lose the first billion dollars while still earnestly expecting long-term profit for their investors, but no longer believe their own sales pitch by the time they lose the second billion dollars, and are now only in it for the personal fees, does that make them the billion-dollar fraudster we're seeking?

50:

I said: "That $242m didn't consist of fees, it was the investment itself." Now I think I was wrong! If you look here, some of the installments are enumerated: millions for fictitious bribes, millions for fictitious financial fees... It also seems possible that they only took him (Banco Noroeste's Cayman manager) for $181m, the rest of it being interest earned. But I'm not sure.

51:

Come to think of it, the case of Trentex Trading Co. vs Central Bank of Nigeria involved a fraud sufficiently large to drive up the world price of cement. It went like this: Nigerian Govt contracts for a large volume of cement. Corrupt officials use opportunity to contract for an absolutely gargantuan volume of cement, ram the bill to the Government, and presumably resell the surplus cement on the sly. So much cement is ordered that on any given day the deliveries exceed the capacity of the port of Lagos to unload it, and dozens of ships end up queueing in the anchorage.

Eventually the fraud becomes embarrassingly obvious and the Nigerian government dishonours the contracts. Subsequent litigation established the principle in public international law that a state is responsible for the actions of its agents, even if they act ultra vires or illegally.

52:

Googling, I learn that Trentex itself sold some 240,000 tonnes of cement, which is plenty but only $14m at the time.

53:

Alex@52

That's enough for a _lot_ of overcoats: possibly enough to solve the Nigerian 419 problem once and for all.

Cadbury.

54:

I admit it is political axegrinding, but: the Iraq war, with Haliburton as scammer, can be seen as a means to extract maximum money from the US taxpayer with minimum delivery. At some point, any fair-looking contract can become a scam, merely through intentionally delivering sufficiently lesser value than the other party believed they deserved. You can deliver greater value, and be thought of kindly (or perhaps contemptuously); you can deliver the exact value paid for, and be though honest; you can you can deliver somewhat less, and be thought incompetent or a chiseller; you can deliver none, and be thought a scammer; but there is a missing bit in this example: the bit greater than none, but less than tolerable value, the bit from which most lawsuits on contract law derive.

Do you want your scam to involve contract law? What's the legal foundation for it? We can't have a scam without a law to forbid it--although sometimes the first performer can get away with it. Arguably the RIAA are engaged in a scam based on loopholes in court procedure; the scattergun semi-lawsuit of semi-identified defendants, with the option to withdraw the suit, without suffering sanction, from those found not vulnerable to the full lawsuit. I'm not sure of the maths of this, and I doubt it quite reaches the point you're asking.

Again, it's politics: the Teapot Dome scandal (http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/johnson/teapotdome.htm ) A hundred million 1920's US dollars is mentioned. But it's politics from a long time ago, and that tends to reduce the sting.

I think your novel as proposed and the question you've asked here has to become political, even if you make up your own political entities to involve in it. No-one can take a *government*, or similar entity such as a multinational corporation, for billions without at least pretending to have a political agenda; and few other entities have billions to take. Politicians or directors will have to be either complicit in the scam, or starry-eyed believers in it for it to work - possibly both at different times, while under different mind-altering effects (as with A Scanner Darkly).

55:

Another semi-political observation: if I sell one worthless thing for $10 million, I am a scammer. If I sell a million worthless things for $10 each, I am an entrepeneur. :)

56:

Probably not in the spirit of things, but I wonder what could be found out about some of the Carbon Offset schemes that exist out there....

57:

Darryl - I'd argue what the RIAA are doing is a unsuccesssful denial of service attack on certain filesharing.

58:

PPP & the London UndergeounD reair bills, resulting in a �2.5x10^9 bill or was that ..x10^6 ??

Especially as it was advised before it started that the whole thing wasn't going to work, and was a fiddle.

BTW, I think you should adjust for inflation, as far as possible, so 1955-60 you have to mutiply by 50 to get today's values, and for 1914 something between 100-200x, etc ....

I suppose the biggest theft of all, was the "government" of Mobutu Sese Seko in what is now the DRC.
He stole the whole country, in fact his government gave rise to a new term for a government-type: Kleptocracy.

59:

Coincidentally, I just saw this on my Friends list today:
Lehman hit by $355 million fraud.

60:

I heard about this over a public radio news report. A representative of the US federal reserve talked about solidifying the federal reserve and its control over financial regulation, as well as its powers to acess financial records of different investment and banking forms.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89248533
(Sorry, never was gifted with HTML) The story is there. It's ppretty breif (okay never mind, the pdfs on the left of the story are HUGE.)

Anyway, there's a lot of meat in there. I suppose the analogy here is "know your enemy," all the better to know how to trip the giant, I suppose. Really this was just lucky chance that I even found out this story existed, so I have no clue if its specifically pertinent. Hopefully it helps, though, might be inspiring.

61:

I've just had a sort of idea - I'll email you direct, and hope the SPAM-filter doesn't eat it ....

Election fraud in the sense of taking over a country legitimately, and then ...
kleptocracy - after all the guvmint can access all the accounts, plus a mosern angle.....

62:

Given the present obsession with energy it seems that the best fraud at the moment would be around a "new" energy source.
The cold fusion process from a few years back gives you some idea of how much attention it could generate.
You could temporarily inflate the value of a substance that is "necessary" for the process, or just sell the process. Given how quickly they're jumping on bio fuels I think it has a reasonable chance.
Only problem being I think this has happened a few times before so it's not really new.

63:

Semi-OT, but this April Fools article made me think of your 419 book, especially the bit near the end about poisoning users.

64:

It's not a 419 scam, but these guys wanted a bank loan of $2.4BN euros for a fake airline...

PRAGUE (AFP) - A Czech couple who pretended they wanted to launch an international airline were stopped by the police before convincing a Swiss bank to lend them around 3.5 billion dollars (2.39 billion euros).

Czech police said Thursday in a statement that they had launched criminal proceedings for loan fraud against the 54-year-old husband and his 43-year-old wife.

The attempted fraud, based on false papers from a non-existent US financial institution, was stopped just before the signature of a preliminary agreement with the the "renowned" Swiss bank for the 3.5 billion dollar bank guarantee, police said.

They said they started investigating the case during the first half of 2006 in close cooperation with the US Federal Reserve and US justice department.

65:

On the subject of 419s, I liked this
http://dfranke.us/pfs.html

66:

Astrolabe, just found your link in my referrer log. Glad you enjoyed it.

67:

you could plausibly argue the Darien disaster was a 419 on a massive scale.

the only difference was that many of those involved in the running of the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies (Darien company) were spectacularly unaware of the foundation of lies it was based on, and it is unlikely that those original lies were intended as malicious profiteering, and in the long run, even those involved were harmed by it too.

Given the net result was that around half the national wealth of the nation was placed into the project by the populace (there are contemporary records claiming there wasn't a single family in the country who was not at least indirectly hit by it), with Scotland's modern GNP somewhere around the £85 billion mark, it would be equivalent to a 419 today taking about 40 billion, taking the lives of several thousand, and forcing a nation to lose its independence due to the financial ruin.

John Prebble's "the Darien Disaster" is a good book for that, if you want to look for more info.

68:

419 Haiku

ghostly accident,
prince Kashinhand dead. small fee
to prove trust, god bless

Nigerian widow
Of President Mobuto
Wants all your money

Calvary Greetings,
Modalities in order,
Unforeseen expense

African princess
oesophageal cancer
Nigerian scam

Gold lays a wasting,
YOUR UNRESERVED ASSISTANCE...
Springtime we are rich.

Ghostly car bloodbath
Come and collect your free cash
God will reward you

by David Schluter, Thad Humphries, Tim Burgi, Brad Myers, John S. Whitford and Robert Ramsey

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